Saturday, February 20, 2010

Stephen Responds to Tony Horwitz

Best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz recently wrote an essay on the Commonwealth of Virginia for the book "State by State". Meant to provide a "portrait" of the United States, this book features authors, celebrities, even a chef or two who all contribute chapters on every state in the union.

My verdict? If the chapter on Virginia is typical of the entire book, then every copy of it should be dumped in a pile and burned.

This is a copy of the letter I sent to Mr. Horwitz, copied to one of the book's editors, Matt Weiland.

Dear Mr. Horwitz,

My name is Stephen Monteith. I work at a Barnes & Noble in Virginia Beach, VA, and recently discovered the book "State by State". Fascinated by a book that purports to portray "the beauty, the kitsch, the unexpected and the quintessential things that make each state distinctive", and having lived in Virginia my whole life, I first turned to your essay on the Commonwealth to see what was written.

Mr. Horwitz, I am deeply disappointed at the tone your essay takes, the picture it paints of one of the earliest states of the union. In eight and a half pages, you have rarely a good word to say about Virginia, its history, its culture, and most especially its residents. Like the fourth-graders you almost apologetically mention in your opening, you see, and report, only a "charnel house", one "steeped in gore".

You talk of the Civil War battles throughout much of your essay and the "evil" and "carnage" perpetrated therein; but you never once mention the Revolutionary War, in which so many Virginians took up the charge issued by our first governor Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death!" You omit almost any references to the eight presidents who came from Virginia, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, choosing instead to highlight William Henry Harrison, and him only because of his relation to a slave-owning ancestor of his. You spend an entire page and more detailing our involvement in the persecution, death, and "ghoulish afterlife" of Nat Turner, but you do not mention even once Douglas Wilder, the nation's first black governor.

Mr. Horwitz, I have no doubt that your time in Bosnia, Iraq and the Sudan was served with distinction; but perhaps spending so much time in those "history-haunted lands" has left you with a black-lensed perspective of the rest of the world. I don't expect or desire anyone to turn a blind eye to Virginia's dark periods; but in an essay meant to "reveal a state’s beauty marks and moles", I do expect to find much greater balance. This was the first chapter I read from the book, and after reading it, I put it down in disgust; and partially in fear of discovering that every state had received similar treatment. On the other hand, if ever I felt the argument needed to be made that Virginia was a wretched place to be, then you would be the man I would choose to make that argument.


Stephen Monteith

UPDATE - Mr. Horwitz's response, and mine in turn:

Stephen, thanks for your note and think I've been to that B and N one one of my visits to SE Va. I'm sorry you felt that way about my essay, and all I'll say in defense is that I'm not responsible for the marketing you quote, and regret that you opened the book looking for balanced or comprehensive approach to each state. My assignment, if you can call it that, was to try and find a personal and perhaps quirky take on Virginia. Since I'm a history nerd, with somewhat of an eye for the dark underside of history, this seemed a way to frame the piece and I just dove in after a few false starts in other directions (I tried writing about my love of the Blue Ridge since childhood, but am not very good at nature). If I could do it again, I guess I'd convey that I do love Virginia--in part for the history I outlined in the piece. Obviously, we don't share a common approach to or view of the past. I go there looking for great stories, tragedy, humor, irony and what I feel is the truth. If it makes me feel good about my country, great, but I'm not seeking that. And if I were there and we could debate this over a beer, I'd argue that the whole "liberty or death" line is pretty hollow given that one fifth of the nation was enslaved. Anyway, if you can bear to read a different take on Virginia that you might find more loving, at least at times, I wrote a book called "Confederates in the Attic" that gets into Wilder and other aspects of Virginia's healthy contemporary response and debate on racial and other matters. All the best, Tony

Mr. Horwitz,

I appreciate your reply to my letter last week. I realize you had nothing to do with how it was marketed, but still, with only eight pages or so to give people a snapshot of the Commonwealth, I had hoped you would have taken a somewhat lighter tone, at least.

I took your advice and have begun reading "Confederates in the Attic". It is an interesting read, going farther in depth, of course, than your contribution to "State by State", and written with more apparent affection. I look forward to finishing it.

I apologize, Mr. Horwitz, if my first letter to you seemed overly defensive or confrontational. With the recent death of Howard Zinn, there's been a lot of discussion of just how much we need to peel back the covers of history. No one, I'm sure, wants to review the past with any parts omitted, no matter how ugly; but at the same time, we can't ignore how exceptional, how extraordinary, and how inspiring our forebears were, their faults notwithstanding.

In particular, I've grown rather protective of Virginia in light of the national attention we've received with our recent elections. The written word is more powerful than the spoken word, as I'm sure you know; and though newspapers and magazines can and frequently do print retractions, books are harder to revise once they are on the shelves, and even harder to dispute. I suppose, when I read your chapter, I felt it was my duty to respond. Perhaps I've grown too sensitive.

Again, I appreciate you taking the time to answer my letter. I look forward to reading more of your work.


Stephen Monteith

UPDATE - Tony gets the last word:

Don't worry, your letter wasn't confrontational, it was polite and thoughtful, certainly as compared to most I receive, always happy to have honest criticism and disagreement. I've never been a big fan of Zinn, and certainly don't endorse a knee-jerk rejection of everything American, but again, I guess I don't go searching in our history for great moral lessons, pro or con. To me, what's fascinating is how someone--to take the obvious example, Jefferson--can be brilliant, visionary, and yes, inspirational, while also being a terrible hypocrite etc. Saints, if they
exist, aren't very interesting to me, nor are unalloyed villains. Or rather, forget if they're interesting, I just don't think seeing things in black and white is true to history or the human condition. Can't one love Virginia in the same way one loves family? Can't John Smith or Jefferson or Stonewall Jackson be seen as critical figures in our history, worthy of study, without glossing over their (in our eyes) faults? Are those faults in some sense inseparable from their greatness? Anyway, no one could ever accuse Virginia of being boring. Best, Tony

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